Thursday, 12 January 2012

The imam, the sheikh, and the secular

Last week witnessed an exhibitionist exchange of accusations between the National Umma Party (NUP) chief and Ansar imam, Sadiq al-Mahdi, and his brother in law Hassan al-Turabi, the sheikh of the Popular Congress Party (PCP), fellows in the “wobbly” opposition alliance, the National Consensus Forces (NCF). The feud began with Sadiq al-Mahdi’s dismissal of the NCF as a “wobbly” structure hopelessly detached from the beat of the streets. The NCF, said al-Mahdi, had exhausted its credibility by repeatedly claiming that a popular revolt against President Bashir’s regime was around the corner. Instead, he suggested, the opposition should uphold the ‘national agenda’ and seek constructive engagement with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).  The ‘national agenda’ is the title Sadiq gave to a set of reform proposals he had presented to the NCP as a condition for the NUP’s participation in the government.
Apparently, Sadiq al-Mahdi overestimated his price, and was eventually outflanked by his historical rival Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani and his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the NCP’s new partner in the cabinet. According to Sadiq’s cousin and competitor in the leadership of the NUP, Mubarak al-Fadil al-Mahdi, the coalition talks between the NCP and the NUP collapsed at the latter’s insistence that the NCP overhaul the security apparatus and armed forces to accommodate the incomers. Mubarak claimed that the NCP had offered the NUP as much as half the cabinet positions, and even agreed to introduce a prime minister office to suit Sadiq al-Mahdi, but vehemently rejected the propositions of the NUP pertaining to the military and the security bodies. It is obviously hard to verify Mubarak’s account of the NUP-NCP flirt. Whatever the details of the exchange, Sadiq’s party emerged out of the affair firing in all directions. Sadiq’s eldest son and heir apparent, Abd al-Rahman, became President Bashir’s advisor, his daughter, Mariam, continued to agitate for urgent regime change, and the Imam himself muddled in between. He dissociated himself from the opposition and ridiculed its pretentious zeal, but could not force his party to accept the NCP’s offers. Reportedly however he agreed with President Bashir to lead a constructive opposition.
The next twist came with the arrest of the Hassan al-Turabi’s deputy in mid-December. Ibrahim al-Sanosi was apprehended by the security authorities in Khartoum airport upon his return from a trip to Juba and Kampala, both refuge venues for the leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in North Sudan (SPLM-N) and their allies. The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) claimed that al-Sanosi was on a mission to orchestrate a grand plot targeting the overthrow of the regime. As evidence the security agency presented a document allegedly found among al-Sanosi’s belongings. In a speech marking the anniversary of Sudan’s independence Sadiq mocked the PCP’s enthusiasm for ‘democracy’ as measured against the responsibility of the National Islamic Front (NIF) for the 1989 putsch that put an end to his four years reign as prime minister. They invited us to take part in a coup plot, said Sadiq al-Mahdi, prompting Hassan al-Turabi to hold a press conference the next day. Sadiq al-Mahdi is a “liar”, said Turabi, repeating the slight thrice. The sheikh accused Sadiq of collaborating with the NISS in the clamp down on his party. In association with al-Sanosi’s arrest the security authorities had once again shut down the PCP’s mouthpiece, Rai al-Shaab, and seized its assets. Turabi more or less challenged the NISS to arrest him, an invitation that the NCP explicitly declined, saying that the old sheikh wanted to theatrically install himself a hero of anti-government resistance. Sadiq al-Mahdi’s office issued a statement of clarification saying that the imam was not referring to a recent event but to a message carried to him by the NIF figure Suleiman Ahmed Suleiman shortly before the June 1989 coup.
Turabi’s party chose to disclose the clandestine document that the NISS claimed to have seized with al-Sanosi, a three pages projection written in all likelihood by Turabi himself. After the standard opposition depiction of the country’s crisis the author suggested three possible future scenarios, reconciliation between the NCP and its opponents, a putsch, or a popular revolt against the regime. The first was judged as improbable considering the NCP’s adamant attachment to power, and the second dismissed as unappealing. Regarding the third option, the document warned of an extended confrontation between the regime and its opponents which might well result in widespread civil war and accelerate the country’s fragmentation. To counter this risk and secure a favourable outcome the author advised a speedy well organized ‘revolution’ under the control of the established political parties with the guarantee of a streamlined transition to parliamentary rule, a chocolate laxative, I assume.
The last scene in this self-parody took place two days ago. The two elderly gentlemen responded to a reconciliation mediation led by Hala Abd al-Haleem, a younger Khartoum politician who presides over the miniscule New Democratic Forces Movement (Haqq). After a lengthy meeting in the premises of Haqq the two leaders came out all smiles. Standing between the two Hala declared that the sheikh and the imam had agreed to rest their disputes and cooperate towards toppling the regime. She stated further that Turabi had agreed to the restructuring of the opposition alliance, the NCF, along the lines suggested by Sadiq al-Mahdi. Knowing Sadiq’s infatuation with titles and honours, the press in Khartoum speculated that the imam might be interested in chairing the revamped opposition umbrella, a position currently occupied by the party-less Farouq Abu Issa.  
Hala heads one of two wings of a party that is itself the outcome of the fracture of an organisation founded by al-Khatim Adlan in the 1990s. The late Adlan was a prominent ex-communist who turned his back to the Sudanese Communist Party upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. His departure text, ‘Time for change’, which draws heavily from Alvin Toffler’s bestsellers, became the bible of a new generation of politically ambitious intellectuals in Khartoum and the Sudanese diaspora. As soon as it was established however Adlan’s movement split into two, one led by himself in exile and another inside the country under the tutelage of his contemporary and competitor, al-Haj Warrag. At the time, Adlan advocated for armed insurgency against the regime while Warrag called for peaceful resistance. Adlan passed away and Warrag reversed his position, but that is another story.
Recently, what remained of Adlan’s movement divided yet again in the wake of a drawn-out and highly publicized confrontation between its chairwoman, Hala Abd al-Haleem, and her mentor and erstwhile sponsor, al-Bagir al-Afeef. The two wrestled over the control of a cultural centre established by al-Afeef to honour the intellectual heritage of al-Khatim Adlan. Hala accused Afeef of embezzling funds and he simply hailed insults at her. I suggest that Turabi take it from here. He is by all means well-endowed to lead a mediation bid between the two for the general purpose of toppling the regime. 

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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.